Part of the right-wing war on the GOP was fought from within. Public relations consultant F. Clifton White and William Rusher, the publisher of the National Review from 1957 on, had spent the 1950s first taking control of the New York City Young Republican Club, then pushing the national Young Republicans to the right by bringing in a flood of new, conservative members and spreading their influence to the organization’s machinery. White and Rusher’s group of conservatives, known as “the Syndicate,” aimed by 1963 to take over the 400,000-strong national Young Republicans, then one of the country’s largest political organizations.
It was Rusher and White who spearheaded the “draft Goldwater” movement, using their institutional ties to build a movement to push the reluctant ultraconservative into running in 1964, and working behind the scenes to get him the necessary delegates. The group knew his chances were slim, but with Nixon bowing out and Rockefeller a seeming lock for that year’s nomination, they feared that “the advancing cause of conservatism will sustain a setback from which it might not recover for a generation.” Goldwater would have to run as a spoiler to save it.
The other key initiative was “Operation Takeover,” the name given to conservatives’ plan to wrench control of the California Republican Assembly (CRA) from moderates. It started with a Republican splinter group called United Republicans of California (UROC), a self-defined right-wing vanguard that grew to 20,000 members by 1964, and pledged fidelity to conservative principles over the “whims of the people.” It ended with the state’s Republican Party falling to conservatives, as the CRA endorsed Goldwater over Rockefeller and delivered the California primary for him.
The Republican establishment was none too happy, griping in a subsequent report about the “rather vociferous persons” who had taken over Republican volunteer organizations. CRA president William Nelligan complained that “fanatics of the Birch variety have fastened their fangs on the Republican Party’s flanks and are hanging on like grim death.”
Goldwater’s capture of the nomination was also assured by grassroots organizations like Watchdogs of the Republican Party, a mostly female grassroots group that pressured Republican leaders, delegates, and the public to support the senator. Goldwater’s general election campaign ended in a disastrous defeat, but in retrospect it’s viewed as a key political watershed that set the stage for the Right’s subsequent dominance.
These efforts were in turn fed by pressure on the GOP from outside, as conservatives launched a series of challenges to establishment Republicans through quixotic campaigns that didn’t always result in victory. Back in 1958, conservatives and moderates in the California GOP had fought bitterly over who their gubernatorial nominee would be, with the conservative choice — the right-to-work-supporting William Knowland — winning out. Knowland lost badly, but his campaign galvanized the state’s budding conservative movement.
So did a 1962 gubernatorial primary campaign against Nixon by California right-wing activist Joe Shell (who would go on to mastermind “Operation Takeover”) and another by conservative attorney Loyd Wright against senator Thomas Kuchel. Out east, disgruntled Republicans started the Conservative Party in New York to counter the influence of the Liberal Party, weaken Rockefeller, and “exercise leverage” over the major parties.
Perhaps the most famous of such quixotic campaigns was National Review editor William Buckley’s 1965 bid for mayor of New York under the Conservative label, which saw him siphon off the votes of disgruntled “backlash” Democrats. Buckley’s unsuccessful campaign — covered nationwide with the same intensity as Ronald Reagan’s similar but victorious gubernatorial campaign in California a year later — was a considerable stepping stone in the realignment of national Republican politics.
Those in the firing line of mid-century conservatives were understandably unhappy. Buckley’s GOP opponent labeled him “an assassin from the ultraright.” The GOP tried to gut the Conservative Party through rule changes, insisting it would only help liberal Democrats win elections. Republicans regularly complained about the “extreme” elements trying to take over the party.
But the conservatives had the last laugh. It was ultimately their political vision that would triumph thanks to these efforts — not just within the GOP, but in politics as a whole, a process set in motion by an unruly group of activists who were fed up with the party that represented them and decided to do something about it.